A law that the government says will make the UK ‘the safest place in the world to be online’ is a ‘huge threat to freedom of expression’ say campaigners.
The Online Safety Bill, legalisation to regulate online spaces, has cleared Parliament and is ready to become law.
Free speech campaigns warned that the bill will re-introduce “prior restraint for the first time since the 1600s.”
The legislation imposes new legal duties on big tech companies and service providers, overseen by the regulator Ofcom.
Now, if social media platforms do not comply with these rules, Ofcom can fine them up to £18 million or 10 percent of their global annual revenue, whichever is biggest—meaning fines handed down to the biggest platforms could reach “billions of pounds.”
‘Safest Place In The World’
Digital minister Lord Parkinson said: “The intention of this Bill is to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online, particularly for children.
“I firmly believe the Bill will do that, strengthened by the changes which have been made in this House and by the collaborative approach which has been shown not just in all quarters of this House but between both Houses of Parliament.”
Liberal Democrat Lord Clement-Jones said: “This Bill must succeed and implementation must take place swiftly.
“It’s over to Lord Grade and his colleagues at Ofcom, in whom we all have a great deal of confidence.”
The government said it has been working closely with Ofcom to ensure changes will be implemented as quickly as possible when it becomes law.
The regulator will immediately begin work on tackling illegal content and protecting children’s safety, with its consultation process launching in the weeks after Royal Assent. It will then take a “phased approach to bringing the Online Safety Bill into force.”
Ofcom Chief Executive Dame Melanie Dawes said: “Today is a major milestone in the mission to create a safer life online for children and adults in the UK. Everyone at Ofcom feels privileged to be entrusted with this important role, and we’re ready to start implementing these new laws.”
Organisations such as the NSPCC said the bill “strengthens powerful child protection laws.”
NSPCC chief executive Sir Peter Wanless said: “It is a momentous day for children and will finally result in the ground-breaking protections they should expect online.
“Children can benefit greatly from life online. Tech companies can now seize the opportunity to embrace safety by design. The NSPCC is ready to help them listen to and understand the online experiences of their young users to help ensure every child feels safe and empowered online.”
However, free speech activists are cautious about the major implications on free speech.
“The Online Safety Bill also poses a huge threat to freedom of expression with tech companies expected to decide what is and isn’t legal,” it said.
“Automated moderation will censor content before it’s even been published, re-introducing prior restraint for the first time since the 1600s,” it added.
It said that the “Online Safety Bill is an overblown legislative mess that could seriously harm our security by removing privacy from Internet users.”
“Powers to scan private messages remain, despite it being impossible to achieve in reality without blowing a hole in our cybersecurity,” the group claimed.